This film picked up an unexpected poignancy after its January 17th with the news that Nelson Mandela had passed away, gaining it an importance it had not previously had when it was simply a humble biopic, and not a sort of memorial too. Indeed, it became clear that a lot rested on Idris Elba’s shoulders, his portrayal of Mandela becoming a pivotal moment in his career and as much as Justin Chadwick’s direction and the focus of the film mattered, Elba’s portrayal almost mattered more.
He doesn’t disappoint. Mastering Mandela’s accent exactly and enveloping his persona, his version of Mandela is every bit as riveting, and possibly even more so than Morgan Freeman’s performance in the powerful ‘Invictus’. There have been mutterings of an Oscar nomination for him, and it must be said that they definitely wouldn’t be going too far wrong if he made the list, and maybe even won it. Elba’s work is offset nicely by a career best performance from Naomie Harris as his wife Winnie, which is hugely welcome since her performance in the last Bond film ‘Skyfall’ was underwhelming to say the least. Here though she displays just how dedicated and powerful a woman Winnie was, and matches Elba all the way. Any nominations that go her way are deserved too, so the film definitely delivers in terms of the main performances.
It has more problems in its content. Chadwick and writer William Nicholson provide us with a watered down look at the events that transpired in Mandela’s life, and it all feels a little like they poked the surface of all the possibilities and all the amazingly important moments in what was a pivotal time in South African history by simply flying past them in a matter of minutes, focusing more on Mandela’s power as a figure of resistance and the true values of revolution than any real character study or look at the brutal and vital events of the time. It makes for satisfying and worthwhile viewing, but there is an air of missed opportunity there that means it isn’t quite as great as either Elba or Harris deserve having given such career defining performances as their iconic characters.
‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’ does its job of being a moving and sometimes inspiring tale, but it sadly does not stick with you as much as it should, captivate you as much as it should or provide you with a serious insight in to this illustrious and important man as much as it should, and so it almost becomes just a caring and respectful timely eulogy when it could have used its remarkable chance to tell a story and be a film that stayed in the hearts and minds for years to come. A missed opportunity definitely, but there’s still enough merit here to make it a worthwhile if slightly underwhelming experience.
‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’ starts showing at City Screen on January 17th